Long before The Wire, Breaking Bad, and The Killing, there was Mikko Niskanen’s Eight Deadly Shots, an extraordinary Finnish television miniseries that recounted in flashback and unflinching detail the desperate circumstances that led an impoverished tenant farmer to shoot four policemen in a drunken rage. We have the brilliant film historian and filmmaker Peter Von Bagh—who is also the artistic director of Finland’s Midnight Sun Film Festival and the co-director of Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna—to thank for resurrecting this forgotten gem from 1972, which makes its New York debut in its original five-hour-plus version, presented as part of To Save and Project: The 11th MoMA International Festival of Film Preservation.
Von Bagh writes, “It was a news report—a poor farmer kills four policemen—that inspired what all agree, including Aki Kaurismäki, is Finnish cinema’s masterpiece. Eight Deadly Shots is an epic drama, a Zola-esque depiction of life’s complicated reasons, where time and duration become little by little a hypnotic force: the very ordinary seems to float in a strange realm of unknown dimensions. The illegal distilling of moonshine becomes a form of social protest—the last such act for a powerless man, an illusory flame of freedom. Like children, men have retreated into the heart of nature, amidst snowdrifts or in the darkening summer night, forever on the margins of society. Even the production process seems to have had a hypnotic quality for those involved; the film was shot not only by its DP, but sometimes by whoever happened to be around, often director Niskanen himself. He also played the lead role and his portrayal is shattering, a performance so real that it is beyond what is taught in acting school. The film takes an ‘understand, not judge’ approach to a horrific crime and achieves a kind of universal relevance, concrete and humane, combining the psychological, biological, and social facts with a sharp and merciless anthropological edge—a clenched fist.”
Von Bagh’s own documentary portrait of Mikko Niskanen is an indispensable companion piece to these screenings, providing the context in which Eight Deadly Shots was made. Niskanen’s aesthetic sensibility—brutal yet compassionate—recalls both Victor Sjöstrom’s silent-era masterpiece The Phantom Chariot (1921) and the neorealist films of Ken Loach. Von Bagh makes evident, through family home movies, film clips, and interviews, the painful degree to which Niskanen identified with the farmer’s defiance and despair.
Organized by Joshua Siegel, Associate Curator, Department of Film.
Image: Eight Deadly Shots. 1972. Finland. Directed by Mikko Niskanen. Image courtesy The Finnish Film Foundation and YLE